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By Sabine Ganezer
Observer Staff Writer 

Sign the Wildlife Conservation Society's Demand for "Gorilla-safe" Phones From Manufacturers

Did you know that dusty flip-phone in the back of your closet is killing gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?


August 3, 2017

Gorilla mother and baby

We Americans are constantly "upgrading" our Smartphones and similar devices – the new software demands new hardware, the fashions change, the company carefully makes things fall into place so the device is out of date within about a year ("planned obsolescence.") In fact, the average U.S. Smartphone user will ditch the old phone and buy a new one every 14 months. Many obsolete phones end up in landfills. Others sit invisibly in their owner's forgotten enclave, waiting for the trouble to be taken to recycle them. Meanwhile, the constant manufacture of more and more consumer electronics leads to more and more mining for elements such as tungsten, tin, gold and coltan (a.k.a. tantalum).

Many of these elements are concentrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the last stronghold for Grauer's Gorillas. The largest of all primates, these peaceable animals have been decimated by 77% since 1994. Only 3800 individuals were amassed in their entire native range in a 2016 survey by Andrew J. Plumptre et al., and there are very few in captivity. Much of the danger to Grauer's Gorillas is caused by mining for tungsten, tin and tantalum, a process which requires a complete razing of the local flora and fauna. Furthermore, the land has been torn apart by civil wars and the inhumane, dangerous environment the fighting and the mine work engender. Wealthy nations like the United States are, in effect, financing the war and rewarding workplace violence as we buy the "conflict minerals" to manufacture more phones.

Thankfully, local zoos and specialized organizations across the globe are getting involved, and they are providing ways for ordinary people to contribute to gorilla conservation in concrete, definite ways. On the World Wide Web, people can sign the Wildlife Conservation Society's pledge to demand "gorilla-safe" phones from companies ( These phones would disclose their mineral acquisition practices and would need to use only materials obtained in a legal and environmentally responsible manner. Locally to Santa Monica, the Los Angeles Zoo has partnered with Eco-Cell, a company that accepts dead or otherwise unwanted cell phones (smart or dumb), tablets, MP3 players, iPods, and the chargers that accompany all these devices, as well as the batteries inside. After receiving the phones, the company fixes up and repurposes them, or sends them to facilities to recycle those crucial minerals while following a "zero-landfill" policy – that is, no waste from the facilities goes uselessly to the landfill; all matter is returned into the cycle.

As for the fixed-up devices, they are sometimes resold to raise money for gorilla conservation. Otherwise, the devices themselves are donated directly to conservation workers at GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation And Conservation Education Center). GRACE works to care for young gorillas orphaned by poaching and reintroduces them into their natural habitat. The organization also educates DRC locals about the importance of leaving the gorillas enough forest to sustain lives of freedom once they are reintroduced. People of the Congo are welcomed at GRACE, which can provide them with an education in veterinary training, conservation science and education, animal husbandry, and other related disciplines.

But GRACE's work is not confined to the faraway land where gorillas precariously roam – right at home, we all possess resources physically vital to the project. Thanks to Smartphones donated via Eco-Cell, GRACE veterinarians have been able to contact animal husbandry experts at the LA Zoo from their base in a low-service region in the DRC. Diagnoses have been ascertained faster and sick animals have been brought back to health; otherwise, they might have become another crushing dent in the statistics of surviving gorillas.

While a lot of positive work has been accomplished, more work is necessary. President Donald Trump has taken steps to have environmental protection laws weakened or repealed in favor of more lenient codes regulating U.S. and international business. Trump claims he is putting "America First" with these changes. However, in order to boost economic growth in the short term, Trump is actively helping to fuel a future crash, when the supposedly "revived" coal industry and all those frackable American lands and the pipelines chugging toxic oil across the ocean and the tantalum mines in the DRC will dry up, as do all non-renewable resources.

If there is hope, it is in the fact that human creativity and determination is a renewable resource: every single one of us can pour our few drops into the barrel to create a massive flood of clean technologies and practices that promote healthy economies as well as a healthy environment. Donating used electronics, chargers and batteries is a very doable and very real way that allows every single one of us in privileged, electronically-saturated America to participate. And it is a way for us to remember that we are a part of the circle of energy on this planet, and we are not above it but must stay in the ring to keep life flowing among ourselves and our equally important fellow creatures.

As senior animal keeper Jim Haigwood points out in the LA Zoo's member publication Zoo View, "All the materials that go into making the things we utilize come from somewhere – and ultimately, it's from nature." In order to keep the "things" we love – and the mystical animals that enchant our lives – in constant production, we must give back all that we take.

A baby Grauer's Gorilla



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